Inner Cities

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:54 pm on 11th December 1985.

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Photo of Mr Fred Silvester Mr Fred Silvester , Manchester, Withington 6:54 pm, 11th December 1985

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) thinks that the Church of England is still the Tory party at prayer. Nobody who lives in the diocese of Manchester could fall into that error. I do not wish to criticise the Church for its views on that or any other matter. I shall deal with two aspects, on one of which the Church spent much time and one which was omitted from its report. Both are crucial to the understanding of what we should do about our inner cities. The Church's report, like so many others, reflects the same story. Our discussions today and reports over many years have followed the same pattern and much of the analysis in the Church's report follows the analysis in many earlier reports.

I wish to refer to a point on which the Church has been silent. The hon. Member for Walton said that the Church had a view about the role of the community as well as the role of the individual. That is true. But it is also important to recognise that over the years the understanding of how to tackle inner city problems has moved from the belief that it could be done by communal action to an understanding of the importance of individual actions and responsibility.

A recent and interesting document from the Society of Friends contained a number of quotations from people working in the inner cities. It showed that one of the features of the small areas within our inner cities is apathy, at times verging on despair. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) referred to lack of people able to pick up and run businesses. David Sheppard's comment about the helpless being left behind is true. The solutions suggested do not take account of the importance of personal involvement. Many people who complain that the inner city is full of old people are the very people who argue that family responsibility for old people has faded away and that it is now sufficient to park them in a home at the state's expense and make the Christmas visit with a potted plant and a smile. Those responsibilities, however, still remain.

The Church talked about people moving away from the inner cities to the suburbs and leafier places. Of course, as people get wealthier they will do that, but the link between the old place and the new is a powerful and important one. In earlier days it led to a lot of resources and money going back to the area from which the people came, but that process is diminishing. I cite one example related to changes that have occurred in education within the cities. I will not go through the arguments for grammar schools, but in the days when there was a grammar school selection process the grammar school would select from all over the city. The family remained in the place from which the child came. Nowadays, people move into my constituency to be within the catchment area of the school that is regarded as having the best academic record and highest social kudos, thus creating a middle-class ghetto. That is one of the side effects of the policies that we are pursuing. I hope that when we discuss these matters we shall remember— the Church did not, although I had hoped that it would — to pay more attention to the personal aspects of some of the policies and to the personal responsibilities that go with them.

I wish to refer mainly to housing, as that is the centre of the debate. I prefer the Duke of Edinburgh's report to the Church's report because it deals with a real problem to which the Government must pay attention. The Duke's report said, in effect, that the present structure was so confusing that it was actually hindering the housing market. Much has been said in the debate and in the Church's report about the decline in privately rented accommodation. The Church wrings its hands, makes no real recommendations about how to tackle the problem and virtually suggests that it is impossible. The Duke's report, however, makes practical suggestions. They may not prove acceptable in detail, but at least an effort has been made to tackle the problem. Mortgage interest relief, which is likely to become a subject of increasing political debate, housing associations and all the other aspects of housing in the city are considered within the overall context. The Church, however, washes its hands of all that and says that we should go back to looking to the councils to provide the necessary facilities.

If I have learnt one thing over the years it is that mammoth council estates have been one of the worst features of inner city housing. I do not refer only to high-rise accommodation and I shall not go into the question of who was responsible. It was a fashion in which we all became involved and we are well out of it. When I was on a council in the early days I dealt with apparently trifling matters such as whether old ladies could keep dogs in blocks of flats, which were then pooh-poohed as matters of no concern but the importance of which has been increasingly appreciated since. Having passed through that fashion, however, let us not pass into another and imagine that it is sufficient to divide the council estates into smaller units with neighbourhood offices and the like. People want a real choice, not just between one type of house and another but among the various people offering housing — housing associations, private landlords, owner-occupation if they can afford it, shared houses, and so on. We want people to have the maximum options and to choose for themselves how to conduct their lives. I do not doubt for one moment that more money is needed for housing, but it must be provided in a way that will multiply the choice available to individuals and families.

I believe that the Government must continue to consider the amount of money available for housing. It is not just a question whether to build more council estates or to try to solve the problem in other ways. The housing fabric of the cities is clearly declining. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred to repair grants and there is still much more scope for the use of such grants in our cities. I am delighted that the Government are increasing the scope for the renovation of council estates, but we shall need more money than is now available to deal with some of the lousy estates put up after the war. Some money has been set aside for that, but the problem is considerable.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) wanted a fusillade to be directed at the whole problem. I believe that we need a carefully aimed shot. There are real problems in the inner cities, predominantly concerning the physical environment and especially housing. If we concentrate our resources on those aspects we shall begin to make strides.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will not merely defend the Government's record, which is very good and much better than most comments in the debate have allowed, but will concentrate on the two central issues. First, he must not say that additional resources are not required for housing when clearly they are required and we cannot possibly tackle the problem without them. Secondly, the Government must strongly encourage developments already begun in which Government money for industry, for instance, is linked with private resources.

It is of fundamental importance that we should engage the people who live and work in these areas to make things hum for themselves. People brought in from outside do a good job but then go back to homes in the leafy suburbs. The people who live and work in the area must be helped and stimulated to do their own thing.